TORONTO — For Winter Olympics rookie Abel Charles, training for the biggest event in sports has involved sitting at home and yelling at a television as champion skiers perform daring flips in the air.
The mock play-by-play has been going on for months as Charles and several dozen newbie broadcasters gear up to debut as Canada’s first official commentators to call an Olympic Games in a language other than English or French.
Viewers accustomed to the rapid-fire play-by-play of seasoned vets like Harry Neale or Bob Cole will have to lend these novices a bit of leeway, says sports anchor Jim Van Horne, who’s been coaching the aboriginal team in the lead-up to the Games.
“Raw is the word to describe them,” Van Horne, a former TSN and Sportsnet anchor, says of the crew he’s been training at APTN studios in Winnipeg.
“There might be maybe two or three that have a limited amount of broadcast experience, that have maybe done a little bit of hockey on radio, but I don’t think any of them have television experience, virtually none.”
It was hard enough finding fluent speakers willing to go on camera, let alone fluent speakers with a background in the winter sport involved, he notes.
“To find individuals who were fluent in their aboriginal languages and who had experience was virtually impossible — there just wasn’t anybody,” says Van Horne.
The commentators have diverse backgrounds. Some are singers and performers, says Charles, while others, like him, were scouted at small-town radio stations.
NHL announcers Alex Chum and Bill Tang, meanwhile, jumped on board after pioneering Cantonese broadcasts for the CBC.
An unprecedented push by a multi-channel media consortium led by CTV and Rogers means these Games will air in 22 different languages, among them Mandarin, Polish, Ukrainian, Punjabi and South Asia’s Gujarati.
This time around, fans can catch skeleton in Tamil, luge in Bangla and long track in Urdu on Olympic partners including Omni, ATN and APTN.
Omni news director Pierluigi Roi says sports were matched with cultures that had a particular interest in specific games, noting that alpine events are big with Italian audiences, while several Chinese skating stars have made on-ice events popular in the Asian community.
A third of the languages involve aboriginal tongues, among them Cree, Dene, Inuktitut, Michif, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Ojibwa and Oji-Cree, many of them ill-equipped to describe such simple winter gear as an athlete’s helmet, says Charles, who speaks Cree.
“We have the word hat — that’s a cap or a cowboy hat — but this one describes the hardness, the texture, the shell-like hat,” he says of the multi-syllabic substitute in Cree.
“It’s kind of a new expression. We’re putting two words together … that have always existed, but we’re putting them together now.”
Such vexing questions as how to refer to a Salchow in figure skating were hashed out roughly three months ago when Charles and other members of APTN’s Olympics team met to devise a glossary of terms at the University of Regina’s department of Indian languages.
They came up with a Cree document that runs 30 pages and includes descriptive terms like “soskwasiniy,” for curling stone.
“It means a kind of a rock you slide over the ice,” says Charles.
In many cases, expressions are much longer, and take more time to say, than in English.
Giant slalom is “awac pah-peyahtak ka-wawaski-nipawapoyohk,” while icing is “misakame-wepahwew akami-tipahikan.”
One of the biggest challenges will be to shorten aboriginal expressions so that announcers can keep up with the fast pace of play, says Charles, who hosts a live current affairs radio show in La Ronge, Sask., for Missinipi Broadcasting Corp.
“Here at the MBC we are a kind of a commercial radio station and we do a lot of ads,” notes Charles. “The English ads would be 30 seconds; (in) Cree they allow for 60 seconds. It just takes a little longer.”
Although unprecedented for Canada’s Olympics broadcast, CBC has already had great success in recent years with NHL broadcasts in Punjabi, Italian, Cantonese, Mandarin and, most recently, Inuktitut.
In those early experiments, many terms have been tested out. Puck, for example, will be referred to as “bang” or “biscuit” in Cantonese, says Chum.
“We call it like a biscuit, because it looks like a biscuit,” Chum says.
But in some cases it may be better to use an English term than invent an expression that could confuse viewers, he says.
With a popular sport like hockey, redefining too many aspects of the game could also keep Chinese Canadians from sharing in the post-game euphoria with English speakers, he adds.
“There is already some translation in Chinese terminology but we’ll try to stick into the English one because you know when you watch TV, when you go to the work, everybody is seeing hockey, hockey, but … (Chinese fans) cannot communicate it to their co-workers,” says Chum.
Chum says he will focus his commentary on explaining the rules of the game, with more time spent pointing out basic strategy and technique than detailed analysis.
As the host of a daily radio show for an aboriginal radio network, Charles is the seasoned vet among the bunch, but still admits to some uncertainty.
He took part in Van Horne’s two training sessions last fall, but from there continued the training on his own until he was to return to Winnipeg this week for a final training burst before the Games on Friday.
“I’ve doing commentary at home on a TV, I’m listening to the commentators — what are they talking about? What are they looking for? What is the vocabulary?” says Charles, who will be handling opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies as well as covering downhill skiing, moguls and aerials.
Charles says he’s proud to be part of the Games.
“For purposes of national pride, the Cree nation pride, they would prefer to watch the sport and hear the sport in their own language if they understand that language,” he says.
“We as aboriginal people, Cree people, need to know that our language is important … that it matters, and I think hearing my language or seeing somebody speak it gives me a sense of pride.”